How To Make Family Meals A Better Experience For Everyone

Even if everyone in your household is busy or picky.

Meals are a constant consideration in any busy household. Under my roof, not only are there neurodivergent traits, an eating disorder history, and single-parenting struggles to account for, but also the reality of our daily schedule: Sometimes we're spilling through the door at 6:15 p.m., hangry from a day at school, work, and activities, and there's limited time before the youngest needs to go to bed (or have a meltdown trying). Amidst the chaos, it would be understandable if family dinners fell by the wayside—but there are important reasons to keep up the practice.

I'm frequently getting the messaging about the "importance of family dinner," which is backed by research and expert opinion. I asked mindfulness coach Kristi Coppa, founder of Wondergrade, an emotional learning app and parent resource, for advice on navigating the reality of family dinner.

Embrace the imperfection of the family dinner

Giving myself the grace to have snack dinner or dinner in front of a movie once in a while really takes the pressure off. However, when we do come together and share a meal, I want to make it count.

"Choose one meal a week and make it a mindful family meal," Coppa says. "The goal of having a mindful meal is to have fun and explore the food we eat." This is not necessarily the time to try a new, exotic recipe the children of the house will hate, but instead consider what we appreciate about the foods in our everyday rotation. No phones or TV at this weekly meal will help make that happen. And there are a few other ways to bend the traditional idea of a family dinner to fit what works for your household.

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It's still a family dinner if no one eats the same thing, for example. For the sake of harmony, I often act as a short order cook for my family of three. While my kids partake in "tester bites" to integrate new flavors and foods into their diet, it's okay, and often recommended, to have "safe" or "preferred" foods on the plate no matter what. Also, for the sake of everyone's happiness, I don't judge the food I make or serve the kids. Food is food, especially when you're accommodating any extenuating factors. This is not the moment to proclaim that your children shouldn't complain about their plate, or that they need to stay at the table until they finish. That's not what family dinners are about.

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How to engage with kids at a family dinner

There are lots of resources online for questions to ask your kid instead of "How was your day?" Beyond that, Coppa recommends some other ways to make mealtime more "mindful" and, by extension, more calm, and even enjoyable. No matter the topic of conversation, "Remember to keep it lighthearted and age-appropriate," she says.

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Many families begin dinner with a prayer, but lots of people don't. Regardless of your religious traditions, you can practice gratitude as a family. "Before the meal, take a moment to say thank you for the food on your plate," Coppa says. "Talk about where the food came from and all the people involved in getting that food ready to eat, like the farmers, the grocery store clerks, etc." This can lead to a greater appreciation for the meal everyone's about to enjoy together.

Another technique Coppa recommends is to use all the senses while eating, prompting kids to tune into the smells, textures, and sounds of the food. (See below for where I ran into trouble with this one.) To model mindfulness for your family, try slowing down while you eat.

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"Take one bite at a time, putting the utensil down, chewing, and swallowing before taking the next bite," Coppa says, adding that you can turn this into a game for kids by having everyone close their eyes while they take a bite, guessing what the food is based on its flavors, smells, or textures.

Finally, a good practice that stems from intuitive eating is to talk to kids about how to recognize hunger and fullness cues. "Ask them how their tummy feels before, during, and after eating. Does it change?" This introductory practice can make mealtime better for everyone, because it gives kids the agency to ask for seconds, transition to dessert, or decide they're finished.

For a better experience overall—and I know some people will come at me for this—build dessert into the meal even if kids don't eat the main course or the vegetable. To really create harmony (and practice intuitive eating), you can serve dessert on the same plate as the main, treating all foods as equally important. This way the dessert doesn't get put on a pedestal, and you don't have to put a damper on family dinner by fighting about it.

Troubleshooting the family meal

I made the potential mistake of teaching my oldest that their aversion to the sound of people chewing is called misophonia. Now when their brother chews audibly with his mouth open—something he does constantly due in part to allergy-induced snot—my eldest yells "MISOPHONIA!" and the mindful family meal is derailed.

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Sometimes a family meal needs background music to drown out the sound of mouth noises. Sometimes we even turn on a podcast. Yes, this does take away the opportunity for chitchat at dinner time, but only temporarily. We usually pause and discuss what we listened to, connect it to our lives, or simply comment over the sound of the audio, which is its own form of bonding. If we're really butting up to bedtime and I don't have time to make myself something for dinner that isn't chicken nuggets, I make the kids their food and use the time to read to them. After bedtime, I have a solo parent dinner. It's still mealtime if you're together.

Family dinner can look like a lot of things, as long as it's time together. Let go of the Norman Rockwell version that demands doilies and perfectly plated entrees and just focus on making everyone feel comfortable. Create your version of an emotionally and physically nourishing meal.

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